LACONIA — With one resident left to transfer, the secure facility that houses the state's sex offenders and others found mentally incompetent to stand trial will be closed after a private contractor is found to take on that role.
No decision has been made on where that population will be relocated, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, which will review proposals from independent providers this fall. This week the designated receiving facility, or DRF, located on the grounds of the former New Hampshire State School, renewed its license for six beds, which will allow it to phase out over time.
Since September 2020, DHHS has transitioned three of the four clients at the Laconia DRF to providers with secure locations that meet the security requirements for the population. The last resident is expected to transition elsewhere by the end of June, at which point the DRF will be empty, according to Jake Leon, communications director for DHHS.
In 27 years of operation, 43 people have been housed and treated there, staying for 11 months on average, in preparation for moving to community-based or more secure settings, depending on their mental health diagnoses and behaviors, which include learning style, personal potential and goals, and cognitive and functional profile, Leon said.
The decision follows a shift in treatment philosophy at DHHS to bring people with intellectual disabilities and serious, chronic mental illness into residential settings when possible.
“They’re going from an institutional model to a community-based model for better acute care and services,” said District 1 Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, who represents the Lakes Region. There is no specific date yet to shut down the facility.
“It’s been there for many years, behind the state property," Kenney said. "It’s better to have that issue resolved going into negotiations” to sell the state school property.
The former state school parcel currently houses operations for 911, air quality monitoring and Dube House, which shelters homeless people with COVID-19.
The contract for the replacement provider for the Laconia DRF will have to be approved by the governor and executive council, and will operate with DHHS oversight.
Over the past two years, the facility has shifted toward practices that mesh with current clinical thinking and risk-management literature, according to DHHS. Treatment is geared to helping individuals better understand and regulate their emotions, and reach their goals through on-track decision-making, Leon said.
Since 2019, the program has observed a decreased rates of intensive physical incidents, calls to police and use of physical restraints. There have been higher rates of successful community outings and discharges to follow-up programs, Leon said in an emailed statement.
In almost all cases, the population, considered a risk to themselves and others, requires a secure setting and close monitoring, said Thurman Hicks, who has worked at the DRF for two and half years.
The closure “feels like a punch in the gut. We’ve done so much,” said Hicks, one of six staff members still working there. "When I first started it was a treatment program. Now we’re just like babysitters,” which he said is frustrating. “Some of the clients are very assaultive and will assault staff and nothing gets done about it.” The involuntary admissions have included sex offenders, arsonists and people who are aggressive but not competent to stand trial. Hicks said he bemoans the loss of a prior model that required residents to be accountable for their actions on a daily basis. Residents were taught to cook and clean and accomplish other activities of independent living, Hicks said.
“Then we had to cook for them all. There’s so much that has changed since we started. They were supposed to report if they had triggers towards children. Now it’s not happening, nor is it monitored,” Hicks said. “When they leave, they go back to their normal selves.” Some staff have received harassing phone calls, he said. Some incidents were brought to the attention of the State Employees Union, without follow through or results, Hicks said.
Leon said in the statement that DHHS has a response plan for incidents reported, which includes following up with clients who have been discharged. The department is currently addressing the phone calls, he said.
“The department is ensuring that security requirements are met with transition to a vendor-based program. The department will continue to provide oversight for the program to ensure safety and security,” Leon said.